White House Defends Deadly Yemen Raid

White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The White House denied Thursday that the Yemen raid in which a member of Navy SEAL Team 6 was killed may have been hastily planned and possibly compromised.

"This was a very well thought-out and executed effort," which had the recommendation and support of new Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said.

The Pentagon backed up Spicer's assessment on the action last Saturday against a compound of the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula group that has planned terror attacks in Europe and the U.S.

"It's not true that the raid lost surprise," said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. "We have no information to suggest that it was compromised."

In a statement Sunday, Trump called the raid "successful." He said that 14 militants were killed and that intelligence was seized "that will assist the U.S. in preventing terrorism against its citizens and people around the world."

"It's hard to ever call something a complete success, when you have the loss of life or people injured," Spicer said of the raid on the village of Yakla in a remote area of Yemen's interior.

"But I think when you look at the totality of what was gained to prevent the future loss of life -- it is a successful operation by all standards."

Navy Chief Special Warfare Operator William "Ryan" Owens, 36, was killed in raid and became the first known combat fatality of Trump's presidency. Three other service members were wounded in what the Defense Department has termed a "ferocious firefight" and two more were injured in the hard landing of an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

The Osprey could not be flown out and was later destroyed by an AV-8B Harrier II jet flying off the amphibious assault ship Makin Island.

On Wednesday, Trump made an unannounced trip to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for the solemn ceremony marking the return of Owens' remains.

At his daily briefing, Spicer gave a detailed timeline on the decision-making process leading up to the raid. The planning began in early November during the administration of former President Barack Obama and recommendations for approval were proceeding, but Obama never signed off on launching the mission.

The process was delayed to await a moonless night in Yemen, and the first opportunity came after Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration, Spicer said. Trump's personal approval was required.

By law, the military has authority for operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Other operations require presidential approval.

The last mission personally authorized by Obama was the Jan. 18 airstrikes in Libya by B-2 Spirit stealth bombers flying out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri against targets of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

At his briefing, Spicer gave the "tick tock," or sequence of events, on how the plan developed and who was involved:

  • Nov. 7: U.S. Central Command submitted the plan to the Defense Department.
  • Dec. 19: DoD approved the plan and "recommended that it be moved ahead" to the White House National Security Council.
  • Jan. 6: Officials of several agencies met and recommended approval. "The conclusion was at that time to hold it for what they called a 'moonless night,' " which would not occur until after Trump was president.
  • Jan. 24: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis studied the plan and recommended approval.
  • Jan. 25: Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the White House national security adviser, briefed Trump on the plan and Mattis' recommendation.
  • Evening of Jan. 25: Trump asked to see Mattis and Dunford. He then had a dinner meeting on the plan with Mattis, Dunford, Flynn, Vice President Mike Pence, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
  • Jan. 26: "The president signed the memo authorizing the action."

As the raid was being carried out, Trump was at the White House and in contact with Mattis, the national security staff, and others who kept him updated on the progress and Owens' death, Spicer said.

Several news outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, have cited official sources in reports that the mission was compromised almost from the outset. After dropping about five miles from the village, the raiders intercepted communications indicating that AQAP was aware of their presence, the reports said.

Yemeni officials and social media sites associated with AQAP have charged that the raid killed 30 to 40 civilians. The dead included the eight-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born AQAP leader and chief propagandist who was killed in a 2011 targeted drone strike in Yemen, according to Yemeni officials.

On Wednesday night, U.S. Central Command said in a statement that commanders have "concluded regrettably that civilian non-combatants were likely killed in the midst of a firefight during a raid in Yemen. Casualties may include children."

The statement said that a credibility assessment team is seeking to determine if there were additional civilian casualties in "the ferocious firefight" that also claimed the life of Owens.

"The known possible civilian casualties appear to have been potentially caught up in aerial gunfire that was called in to assist U.S. forces in contact against a determined enemy that included armed women firing from prepared fighting positions, and U.S. special operations members receiving fire from all sides to include houses and other buildings," the statement said.

AQAP "has a horrifying history of hiding women and children within militant operating areas and terrorist camps, and continuously shows a callous disregard for innocent lives," said Col. John J. Thomas, a CentCom spokesman. "That's what makes cases like these so especially tragic."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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